5 Tips for Sociologists Who Want to Study Digital Technology Use

Thanks to Connor Gilroy, Andrew Lindner, Paul Morgan, CJ Pascoe, Amber Tierney, and Nga Than for feedback.

Sociology is increasingly wading into the study of digital technology use. As a graduate student, I remember searching for terms like “digital” or even “technology” and next to nothing would come up in our disciplinary journals. Sociologists are among the world’s experts in matters of social life and inequality, and I’m so excited for more people from the field to extend our theories and approaches to today’s digitally mediated world.

But we all know that good science emerges from a network of support, and in that spirit I thought to surface a few tips for sociologists who are thinking of venturing into the study of digital technology:

Social scientists study how social forces animate digital technology use

So as sociologists what we study is how social forces animate digital technology use and digitally mediated interaction. Consider, for example, the “screen time” debate. A technologically determinist view would contend that devices have a magnetic power over people that draws them into mindless viewership. Instead, a sociological lens might examine how people working at technology companies design devices in specific ways, or consider that certain challenges facing families lead to particular uses of devices, etc. This centers the discussion of digital technology on people — our domain as sociologists. DiMaggio et al. (2004) wrote a great overview of possible research directions that draws on this perspective. Cassidy Puckett and I recently applied this thinking to education research, too.

Computational social science is not the study of digital technology use

For example, computational approaches could track people’s movements to understand how viruses spread. In this case, computational approaches are quite helpful but may have little to do with understanding digital technology use. Alternatively, a research question that has a lot to do with the study of digital technology use could center on understanding whether and why people turn to digital media as a source to understand virus prevention.

Age is not a prerequisite for studying digital technology use

Further, do not use terms like “digital native” or “digital immigrant” — these terms are used casually to characterize assumed generational differences in digital technology adoption, skill, and comfort with use. They reify divides that don’t necessarily exist. And most important, they diminish the experience, and study, of immigrant life.

“Users” are human beings, and they are not mindless consumers

Read work by scholars outside of sociology who study digital technology

More sociologists are also trying to summarize and interpret these interdisciplinary literatures — and speaking for myself, I can tell you it’s tricky, but rewarding, work! I’m so impressed by how scholars like Jessie Daniels, Ruha Benjamin, Tressie Cottom, Angèle Christin, Forrest Stuart, Jen Schradie, and many others, accomplish this while drawing in subsets of sociological literature pertinent to their domains of interest.

Given how many folks have already studied digital technology use, you can perhaps see how sociologists new to this domain are not likely to be in the business of inventing a new theory of the digital world. We can consider the conceptual and methodological strengths of how scholars in other fields tackle the study of digital technology use. Then we can extend the theories and approaches we have in sociology to digitally mediated life. In doing so we will make important contributions.

Photo by Julius Drost

sociology phd. tech researcher. author. digitaldivisions.org